The State of Public Administration: Reflecting on the Challenges, Harnessing Opportunities

Scholars and practitioners in the field of public administration are continually working to meet the ongoing challenge of providing public services in an efficient, effective, and equitable matter. H. George Frederickson (2005) described this challenge as addressing both “whether an existing public program or proposed program is effective or good,” and “[f]or whom is the program effective or good” (35). Frederickson’s two questions continue to present a simple framework for understanding the complex challenges, both external and internal, facing the field of public administration.

Many of the external challenges, i.e. those originating outside the field, are familiar. The first is legitimacy. While elected officials can point to election results as evidence of their leadership mandate, those within the bureaucracy must legitimize their actions through professionalism, merit, and performance. And even then, members of the public may deem administrative actions illegitimate. The second external challenge is political gridlock. Though gridlock is arguably ingrained in American government as a result of the the basic contradictions present at the founding of the American republic (see Stillman, 1999), paralysis in congress and/or state legislatures feeds into the perception of a generally ineffective or incompetent government. Such a perception breeds general distrust in government, and hurts recruitment of the next generation of effective public servants. The third challenge is the blurring of lines between the public and nonprofit and private sectors. Partly a reaction to the fiscal stresses faced by government, the blurring of sectors can undermine traditional approaches to transparency, accountability, and government responsiveness by diffusing responsibility and regulation. In addition, movement toward multi-sector network governance changes the core-competencies needed in an effective public manager.

The two prominent internal challenges, i.e. those originating in the field, are also familiar. First is the basic question of how best to define the scope of public administration. As government structures and needed public management competencies evolve, theory development and standardized learning outcomes must also evolve if the academic field of public administration is to keep up with practice. This leads to the second internal challenge, which is connecting public administration research to practice. As the techniques deployed in the academic field of public administration become more sophisticated, there is the risk that research supported practices become either inaccessible, or impractical to the practitioner.

Together, the challenges facing the field stem from the difficulty of answering Frederickson’s two questions in a diverse democratically governed society. Simply, the perceived effectiveness, and the perceived beneficiaries of a government action or program are likely dependent on one’s personal preferences, political ideology, or demographics. Hence, easy answers to Frederickson’s questions will be fleeting. However, the field today is full of opportunities that can aid the effective, efficient, and equitable provision of public services and goods.

The first opportunity is the development of new technologies that enhance communication between administrators, and between administrators and citizens. Managers overseeing complex governing networks can communicate electronically with human capital regardless of geographic location, or deployment in the field. In addition, management dashboards such as those described by Edwards and Thomas (2005) can give managers and staff real-time financial and performance data that can be used to improve performance. In addition, social media tools allow government organizations to communicate directly with their citizens, provide real-time service updates, and provide a venue for direct communication between bureaucrat and citizen. These opportunities can improve performance, and help bureaucracies overcome the previously mentioned legitimacy challenge.

The second opportunity is the greater understanding of the human element within public administration. Gabris and Nelson (2013), Grissom (2014) and others, have built on the foundations of the human relations school in public administration by demonstrating how governance teams can improve organizational performance through improved group dynamics. Thus, simple steps like minimizing conflict and working to build trust can improve overall performance. The further development of this line of research can show what steps all public service organizations can take to improve their performance regardless of the context in which they are operating.

The third opportunity is the expanding networks of nonprofit organizations and social entrepreneurs actively involved in public administration. While the blurring of sectors brings challenges as mentioned, it can also yield new innovative governance approaches stemming from previously untapped resources. The growth of networks can also bring the financial resources of private foundations to policy areas where government support is waning. Overall, networks can, as articulated by O’Toole (1997), bring a larger plate of solutions to bear on entrenched public problems.

Frederickson’s framework brings to light the inherent difficulty of defining effectiveness and ensuring equity in the field of public administration. However, because all citizens sacrifice freedom and treasure to participate in a governed society, working towards the goals of effectiveness and equity is a moral imperative. Thus, the greatest asset for the field of public administration is the large number of scholars and practitioners working everyday to find new approaches for addressing the complex challenge of implementing the public interest. This body of competence, when bound with the academic roots of public administration through the continuity of theory, has the opportunity to provide research-supported solutions to the challenge of public governance.

Works Cited

Edwards, D., & Thomas, J. C. (2005). Developing a Municipal Performance‐Measurement System: Reflections on the Atlanta Dashboard. Public Administration Review65(3), 369-376.

Frederickson, H. G. (2005). The State of Social Equity in American Public Administration. National Civic Review (Winter), 31-38.

Gabris, G. T., & Nelson, K. L. (2013). Transforming Municipal Boards into Accountable, High-Performing Teams: Toward a Diagnostic Model of Governing Board Effectiveness. Public Performance & Management Review, 36(3), 472-495.

Grissom, J. A. (2014). Is Discord Detrimental? Using Institutional Variation to Identify the Impact of Public Governing Board Conflict on Outcomes. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 24(2), 289-315.

O’Toole, L. J. (1997). Treating networks seriously: Practical and research-based agendas in public administration. Public Administration Review, 57(1): 45-52.

Stillman, R. J. (1999). Preface to Public Administration (2nd ed.). Burke, VA: Chatelaine Press.


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